While almost everyone accepts that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions if we want to halt climate change, perhaps we’ve already reached the point where we need more drastic solutions. We look at whether we should be exploring geoengineering as a way of cooling our planet

Arguably, climate change is the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced. Until now our response to that threat has rightly been to try and free ourselves from an over-reliance on fossil fuels and cut greenhouse gas emissions. But what happens if that’s not enough? What if climate change has already gone too far and grown too rapidly to be reversed?

The Paris Agreement on climate change certainly provided validation for commentators who had been saying for years that we need to make changes and we need to make them now, and it’s heartening to see the vast majority of countries working together and combining the political, economic and social will of their people to meet the threat of climate change head on. Cutting emissions though is only one technique for fighting climate change, and not everyone sees it as the only tool in our arsenal.

The Paris agreement is a major step in the right direction, but it falls a long way short of the giant leap needed to tackle climate change

The Paris Agreement laid out a framework for, within this century, keeping global temperatures below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, while also optimistically challenging nations to go even further and limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C. The targets are ambitious on their own, and that’s before you elect a climate change denier/sceptic like Donald J Trump to the most powerful position in the world. But as stringent and as challenging to achieve as the Paris targets are, some believe they don’t go far enough. Speaking to the Guardian, Asad Rehman, international climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “The Paris agreement is a major step in the right direction, but it falls a long way short of the giant leap needed to tackle climate change. Far tougher action is needed to rapidly slash emissions.”

Ultimately, net greenhouse gas emissions need to be reduced to zero to limit climate risk, and even then eliminating emissions does not eliminate climate risk, because it does nothing to address emissions already in the atmosphere.

If climate change is the greatest existential threat humanity has ever faced then perhaps we need to think bigger when looking for solutions. That’s not to say that we necessarily need to replace cutting emissions, but rather, we should be looking for something to supplement it. And that’s where geoengineering comes in.

As engineer, physician, entrepreneur and creator of the X Prize Foundation and Singularity University, Dr Peter Diamandis, said in an interview with Tim Ferriss: “The fact of the matter is we are a smart species, and while we should be trying to reduce CO2 and go to an electric and solar economy, if we’re screwed I don’t want to sit here and boil, I’d like to take some actions to reduce that please, and there are actions we can take.”

What is Geoengineering?

Geoengineering is essentially a catch-all term that refers to techniques that could be used to artificially engineer the climate’s temperature. The concept isn’t a new one – the ideas were first kicked around in the 1960s – but given the current political climate and the pessimism over whether we will be able to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, it’s certainly a technique that has seen its profile raised in recent times.

Image courtesy of Nicu Buculei

There are two major types of geoengineering being discussed. The first of which is concerned with removing greenhouse gases, which includes carbon and methane. This technique is considered relatively benign because it directly addresses the increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases that are causing global warming and can logically be combined with emissions mitigation as a response to climate change.

The second major, but far more controversial, example of geoengineering is solar radiation management (SRM). Solar radiation management or solar geoengineering is the process by which humans might deliberately reduce the effect of heat-trapping greenhouses gases, particularly carbon dioxide, by reflecting a small fraction of sunlight back to space. This technique would balance the warming from greenhouse gases with cooling that could be done by releasing aerosols into the stratosphere or by brightening clouds.

“The one thing that I would say with solar radiation management is that you can get it to work quickly and I’m pretty sure that it would work effectively – at least for small temperature changes – but there’s a lot of devil in the detail about how you can do any sort of deployment, what altitude you inject at, what latitude you inject at and what particles you use,” says professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Exeter, Jim Haywood.

Geoengineering isn’t Superman

There’s a theory about Superman. It goes that while he’s going all over the world saving people, nobody else bothers to lift a hand because they live safe in the knowledge that, oh well, Superman will clean it up. And that’s pretty much the main – but not the only – criticism levelled at geoengineering.

But geoenginering isn’t a Superman, solve-all solution. It’s doesn’t replace cutting emissions and it shouldn’t be viewed as our last-minute salvation. It’s a short-term solution that wouldn’t deal with the root cause of climate change, and beyond contributing to a kind of global hubris there are more risks associated with SRM. For a start, it’s hard to gain global approval for a technique that could be used unilaterally, and while SRM may benefit some nations it could have a disastrous effect on others.

“If one country were to geoengineer in the Northern Hemisphere you would actually end up pushing the rain bearing monsoon clouds to the South, which would have some pretty devastating effects on places like the Sahel and India,” says Haywood.

If one country were to geoengineer in the Northern Hemisphere you would actually end up pushing the rain bearing monsoon clouds to the South, which would have some pretty devastating effects

Naomi Klein makes the same point in her book This Changes Everything that SRM originating in the Northern Hemisphere could have disastrous effects on the African and Asian summer monsoons. One study examining a Northern Hemisphere point of origin estimated a 60% to 100% decrease in plant productivity in the Sahel.

Africa would fare better with a Southern Hemisphere point of origin, but this would come at the expense of increased hurricane frequency in the United States. While that’s not ideal, it’s certainly preferable, but as Klein said: “Does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater risk of extreme weather?”

Some scientists believe threat of deploying SRM and the risks associated with its use may serve as a powerful reminder of the pressing need for action on emissions. Although, given Trump’s scepticism on climate change and the fact that he has given a platform to geoengineering apologists like David Schnare, an architect of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – who once said climate change was an “engineering problem” that “has engineering solutions” – it’s unlikely that he will heed that message.

But as SRM advocate and Harvard engineer David Keith said in a paper on SRM, Trump favouring geoengineering as the sole response to climate change isn’t a good thing either. “Under a pessimistic scenario, a Trump administration might gut climate and related geoscience research, eliminate the USGCRP, make deep cuts to Department of Energy renewable energy programmes, kill the Clean Power Plan, eliminate the federal renewable production tax credit, and withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

“It would be counterproductive to establish a formal federal solar geoengineering research program under this scenario because the likely result would be that forces lobbying for climate action would single out and attack research on solar geoengineering, labelling it as an excuse for inaction,” said Keith.

How do we get sulphur in the air?

Ultimately though, like Singularity University’s Dr Peter Diamandis, I don’t want to sit here and boil, so providing we have a global consensus, would it be possible to use SRM if we needed to? Well at the moment the technology has only ever been tested using computer models to simulate its effectiveness, and as Keith points out: “There might be some yet undiscovered risk making the technology much less effective in reality than the largely positive story told by computer models.”

Some people told about what geoengineering entails – flying a plane over your daughter’s school and spraying sulfuric acid in the air – become stronger advocates of mitigation

In order to physically test SRM Keith and his colleague Professor Frank Keutsch have proposed flying a balloon, filled initially with frozen water, about 20km into the air to quantify the microphysics of introducing tiny particles into the stratosphere and to improve our knowledge of the risks and benefits of solar geoengineering in large atmospheric models. Later tests might include tiny amounts of calcium carbonate or sulphates.

Testing may not be popular, but as Alan Robock, professor of climate science in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers University, says, increased publicity about the realities of SRM also may be no bad thing. “Some people told about what geoengineering entails – flying a plane over your daughter’s school and spraying sulfuric acid in the air – become stronger advocates of mitigation.  If we discover SRM is too risky, that will increase the push to do mitigation,” says Robock.

At the minute scientists are still investigating the risks associated with SRM, but even if they decided that SRM was worth the risk and should be used, the technology needed to deploy it on the scale that would be required doesn’t exist.

“You’re talking about [releasing] millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide, for example, into the stratosphere and that’s just not easy to do. You want to inject that at altitudes above 20km, and that is enormously high; there’s very few aircraft that can fly at 20km and we certainly don’t have the payloads, so that’s one big thing against them,” says Haywood.

“You could use rockets but their payloads are very small. There has been suggestion about tethered balloons but there’s a whole plethora of problems  for landing them, including things like lightning, icing, turbulence, a whole bunch of technical and technological barriers that are in the way. Regarding, marine cloud brightening, a huge amount of technical barriers are in the way still and the amount of injection that you might need would extraordinarily large.”

Put simply, we don’t know how to deploy SRM and without conducting field experiments we’ll never know how dangerous artificially altering the climate would be, so many scientists, including the UK Royal Society and US National Academy, support continued research. The consensus is that geoengineering techniques like SRM won’t replace cutting emissions; they will work in support of that aim. That’s not to say there isn’t a healthy fear surrounding a technique that, without being hyperbolic, would aim to hack the planet’s climate and block out the sun.

“I think it’s rather like people who work on things like nuclear winter. They don’t work on things like nuclear winter because they think it’s a good idea,” says Haywood. “They work on it because they want to know the potential outcomes and cataclysmic outcomes of nuclear war. Not everyone has to agree with some of the things that we’re working on. I don’t know whether geoengineering is a good idea or not and I think that the jury is still certainly out on that.”

Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has caused outrage around the world, with the US seemingly putting short-term economic gain over the environment. But are the rest of us all that better? We investigate

Rivers vanishing into thin air; melting icebergs; large-scale coral reef bleaching – we’ve all seen the images and videos in our newsfeeds. These instances are the shocking, visual proof of what climate change scientists have been telling us for years: we’re killing our planet; just two 2 °C more and humans are likely as good as dead.

There’s could be no worse time, then, to have a global warming truther running the White House. America’s newest POTUS, backed by a cherry-picked cabinet of fossil fuel millionaires, has used his first 100 days in office to roll back Obama-era regulations on offshore drilling, dismantle the Clean Power Plan, shred vital coal regulations, put a climate change denier in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency and now – to the horror of many – has pulled out of the Paris Agreement.

US President Donald J Trump, who has just announced that he is pulling out of the Paris climate change agreement. Image courtesy of JStone / Shutterstock.com

Even prior to this latest announcement, environmentalists have been showing their dismay, such as with a headline-grabbing protest at Trump Tower in NYC on May 8th. A week before that, an estimated 300,000 people – many working in STEM industries – braved 91°F heat to march on DC as part of the People’s Climate Movement. “Things have gotten so bad,” one placard read, “that even introverts have to protest”. Trump chose that afternoon to fly to the heart of coal country, snubbing the White House Correspondents Dinner for a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

So, how important is the US’s increasingly non-co-operative stance on climate change to global emission-reducing efforts? Do we need the Trump administration on-board, or can we make earth-saving strides without them?

“The alliance between US and China under the Obama administration played a key role in securing the climate agreement,” explains Greenpeace’s Head of News, Stefano Gelmini, speaking before yesterday’s shock announcement.

“If Trump decides to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement, that will no doubt slow down global efforts to tackle climate change – but it won’t stop them. A growing number of countries are realising the obvious benefits of developing clean energy sources, which are safe, easy to deploy and getting cheaper every year.”

The case for renewables is sound, backed by sound scientific fact. But as we’ve learned, Trump is a “post-truth” businessman, a president who’ll ruthlessly target data that might impede his agenda. In a nutshell: he truly sucks when it comes to action on climate change. But are the rest of us any better?

The UK’s backyard emissions crisis

The UK has enjoyed some encouraging breakthroughs in recent months, including our first coal-free day – on April 21st – since the Industrial Revolution, thanks to alternative sources such as gas, nuclear, wind and solar. The preceding month, the National Grid reported that the UK had broken solar energy records, producing six times more electricity via the photovoltaic network than through the country’s coal-fired power stations.

With Britain’s last coal power station set to shut in 2025, these are encouraging milestones. “Photovoltaics are already the cheapest source of electricity in many countries,” Gelmini points out, “while power towers using mirrors to concentrate solar energy to produce thermal power can now supply electricity 24 hours a day.”

But is the switch from dirty fuel to renewables happening fast enough to honour our international commitments? Worryingly not, says WWF’s Gareth Redmond-King. “We haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.”

Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors

Honouring our commitments to the rest of world look doubtful when we fail to address the crises in our backyard. The government’s own data shows that UK air pollution causes 40,000-50,000 early deaths a years, a quagmire that MPs have called a “pubic health emergency”. After repeatedly refusing to address the issue, the Conservative government is now facing a class action lawsuit from asthma sufferers. Its not so much troubleshooting solutions that we’re lacking – mooted fixes include retro-fitting highly polluting public transport vehicles, introducing diesel vehicle charges and adapting traffic lights at particularly smoggy junctions to work as emission-mufflers – but state responsibility.

Current PM Theresa May gave climate change a single cursory mention in her 2016 party address; in April, she oversaw the sale of our Green Investment Bank for £2.3bn in a move roundly denounced by critics. “If the government picks up its pace, the UK could be a world leader in renewable and green technology,” Greenpeace’s policy director, Doug Parr, told The Guardian. “But selling a great British success story, which levered private money into eco-projects, to a controversial Australian bank [Macquarie] known for asset-stripping, is a disaster.”

European hopes for climate change action

Things look far more hopeful across the pond, in France, where the newly elected Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron has come out as a passionate, vocal advocate for climate change action.

Macron used a recent video to recruit America’s increasingly persecuted “researchers, entrepreneurs, engineers” to France, where he promised they would be welcomed by their French and European peers. “Please, come to France, you are welcome [here]… we like innovation. We want innovative people. We want people working on climate change, energy, renewables and new technologies.”

If we are truly to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we will need to see a much faster growth of renewables and much faster reduction of fossil fuels

Macron hopes to build on the gains made by the EU in recent years. As a recent study by the European Environment Agency (EEA) has revealed, renewables – wind and solar, in particular – helped to cut Europe’s carbon emissions by 10% in 2015. It’s a promising, if patchily applied, number. Scandinavian countries, for example, rely on renewables for 30% of the power, while countries like Malta use it for just 5% of their energy needs.

Mihai Tomescu, who authored the EEA study, summarised the findings by explaining that while the renewable roll-out is picking up speed, it’s not happening fast enough to avert the ecocide we’re on course for. “The current level of effort needs to be stepped up and this is not necessarily going to happen without additional focus,” he told the Guardian.

It’s a warning echoed by James Watson, the chief executive of SolarPower Europe. “This is a good start and we must be positive about that but if we are truly to meet our obligations under the Paris Agreement, we will need to see a much faster growth of renewables and a commensurate, much faster reduction of fossil fuels, and coal power in particular.”

Trump contrast? Concerns for Canada while China shines

In Canada, Justin Trudeau promised an administration with a strong commitment to the Paris Agreement. But since coming to power in 2015, the prime minister has approved not just one but two oil pipelines, and one of Canada’s largest carbon dioxide-emitting liquefied natural gas projects, a move that “virtually [ensures] that Canada will not meet its own climate targets,” says award-winning scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki.

A worker installs a solar panel on a building in Jiujiang, China. The country has increasingly been embracing renewable energy. Image courtesy of humphery / Shutterstock.com

Despite this, like many environmentalists, Suzuki is not without hope. “Nature has the ability to continue to shock us. If we pull back and give nature room to recover, it may surprise us.”

China, a country increasingly pushing to the fore in terms of eco responsibility, are a growing cause for hope. “They’re one of the big reasons for optimism,” says Gelmini.

“China are the biggest emitter and still heavily dependent on coal, but as well as being a vocal advocate they also appear to be walking the walk, installing two wind turbines and three football pitches worth of solar panels every hour, while cancelling many of their planned coal plants. This commitment, as well as their vast economic power, means that the world listens to them.”

Money talks: the economic resistance to climate change action

The world may listen, but it’s money that talks, as the Asset Owner Disclosure Project’s most recent global index has revealed. For the first time, its the majority rather than the minority of global investor heavyweights who recognise the financial risks of climate change, with 60% of the world’s largest 500 asset owners now factoring the financial risks associated with climate change into their investments.

That’s not say there isn’t still “enormous resistance” among asset owners in countries like Australia to heed/invest in climate conscious projects, e according to AODP’s chairman John Hewson. That’s because managers tend to “take a very short-term focus, and rely on short-term remuneration, so they won’t take a medium to long-term challenge on easily”. It’s a dilemma exacerbated by governments downplaying the need to transition to renewables, says Hewson. “It’s not conducive to a serious assessment of risk, that’s for sure.”

And yet the continent is making real strides under premier Jay Weatherill, with a $150m renewable technology fund and the construction of a $1bn solar farm and the world’s biggest battery set to begin at the tailend of 2017.

Investors won’t always follow government policy robotically, AODP’s CEO, Julian Poulter, tells us. “As our report shows, climate change has eaten into the herd mentality that dominates finance – the leading funds have rejected the way that short term markets view climate risk and are doing very different things to the laggards; there has never been a bigger split in finance.”

This is the split that will ultimately prove the difference between a renewables-powered future and ecocide. As the one percenters are finally realising, short-term gains on a dying planet are increasingly valueless. We can’t drink oil, or eat money. An eco-responsible future is still possible – but speed, the data tells us, is everything.